THE QUALITIES OF SALT:
HOW THE GERMAN CHURCH FAILED TO STOP THE RISE OF TYRANNY
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Bonhoeffer was salt. He tried to model his life upon the principles found within the Sermon on the Mount, and he is a man who exemplified all the qualities of salt that Jesus described in his parable in Matthew 5:13. In attempting to reflect on the impact of his life, he wrote in one of his letters from prison: “The restoration of the Church must surely come from a life lived without compromise according to the Sermon on the Mount in the following of Jesus.” The aim of this paper will be to demonstrate how Bonhoeffer’s response to the state is the standard by which Christianity must respond to evil at the state level. The method used in this analysis will be to examine Bonhoeffer and the German Church’s response to evil in how it was accepted, how it was addressed, and how it was allowed. It is precisely in the clash between Christianity and Nazi Germany that this standard for dealing with evil is exemplified in its most extreme manner.
In order to illustrate the contrast between Bonhoeffer and the German Christian responses, we will begin by defining the standard we will use to analyze them. It all comes down to compromise of the three criteria we will use: acceptance, action and acquiescence. Acceptance refers to the willingness of the church to seek to avoid repercussions rather than accept the cost of standing up. Action refers to the repercussions and impact of their own actions in response to the threat. Finally, acquiescence refers to the willingness to either endorse or support the government in its goals and policies. It is with these three criteria that we will examine the events surrounding this crisis, starting with a comparison of the ways acceptance played a part.
The first way in which Bonhoeffer showed his integrity was his willingness to accept the cost of doing what was right. He was recognized in his own day as a very promising theologian despite his young age. Carl Barth was quite impressed with him even on their first meeting. Prominent theologians like Reinhold Niebuhr and Hermann Sasse saw him as one of Germany’s best theologians. At the prominent ecumenical councils, “Dietrich impressed the delegates at the conference with his ability as a speaker and as a leader.” He was forced to give up his promising career in order to stand by his convictions as a religious opponent to the state. As Bosquanet explains “he gave up all hope of normal prospects and privileges, and was ready to bear ridicule and hostility from the majority of his neighbours wherever he went.” Bonhoeffer chose to surrender his advancement in order to gain the advancement of the church and the good of the German people.
The German Christians responded quite differently. In many cases, church leaders saw the circumstances as an opportunity to gain their own advancement: “These politically minded churchmen took advantage of the escalating anti-Semitism throughout the country to skillfully combine nationalism with a religious fervour for purity in the churches.” Hoping for the long sought after unity of the Protestant churches in Germany, their struggle took the form of a power grab in which they gained sole control over religious affairs in Germany. In extreme cases, the grab for power exceeded even well meaning advancement: “Ludwig Müller, Hitler’s man, became president of the High Church Council in Berlin, and also bishop of the Old Prussian Church, in which he had dictatorial powers.” Although not the norm throughout the church, much of the response among well meaning Christians was an opportunistic power grab.
Another characteristic of Bonhoeffer’s response was his acceptance of the danger. Choosing to oppose Germany’s plan meant that he became an enemy of the state. His intention to accept such a fate was well established by his decision to leave the safety of America in lieu of fighting within his own country:
I have made a mistake in coming to America. I must live through this difficult period of our national history with the Christian people of Germany. I will have no right to participate in the reconstruction of Christian Life in Germany after the war if I do not share the trials of this time with my people.”
He faced danger throughout his struggle with the state. In the initial days of the Nazi state, he was “prohibited from speaking publicly anywhere in the Reich and was required to report his movements.” He was even threatened on many occasions early on of being sent to concentration camps, as he described to his colleagues abroad: “the prospect of being sent there was held out to me and my colleague by the highest police authority.” Choosing to live in his integrity forced Bonhoeffer to lose his freedom.
The German Christians however, rather than accepting the danger, chose instead to gain the protection of the state in exchange for their acceptance of the government agenda. The leader of the German Church, Bishop Ludwig Müller, had very close ties to Hitler and in return for his unwavering support of his domestic policies enjoyed unprecedented protection from his government. Their willingness to accept the “Aryan Paragraph” (a statement that declares that only those of Aryan descent may hold office in the church) also secured their protection under the state. This move reflected an intention to merge the Christian church with the Nazi worldview, a direction that Hitler himself sought. Even the Catholic Church made a deal with Hitler to be left alone if they agreed not to interfere with Nazi policies. The German Church was seeking its own protection by making deals for safety in exchange for their quiet consent.
The final way in which Bonhoeffer’s response demonstrated integrity was his commitment for the good of others, which came at his own expense. He accepted the cross of discipleship. Bonhoeffer’s activism cost him a great deal of suffering through his journey. As one author describes: “Bonhoeffer possessed deeper insights into the phenomenon of suffering than any theologian of the twentieth century.” He endured a large volume of setbacks throughout his journey, seeing his attempts at creating a seminary for true pastors be shut down, his Confessing Church fail to enact change and an effort to draft a united statement denouncing the German Church’s heresy fell apart. His willingness to fight for his cause eventually led to his incarceration and death, which was authorized by Hitler himself, demonstrating the deep impact he made in his efforts even without attaining the victory he sought. “He stood out as a moral leader because of his willingness to suffer the harshness of imprisonment for his faith and to endure the loss of his freedom.”
The German Christians response was quite different. They welcomed the prestige that the new government was bringing to the once disheartened nation. They believed that “their union with the state would help to restore the waning prestige of the Church and also mobilize and inspire the youth of Germany toward a new and exhilarating level of Christian militancy.” Although many pastors throughout Germany were hesitant to accept the new government of Germany, many also felt that Germany seemed to be on the rise again and they wanted to be a part of it. This allure, quite prominent in that era, is described as follows:
The national faith of Germany was strong and heroic, God intended the Germans to unite under a powerful leader, to pour out their energies for the national good, and to keep the Aryan race to which they belonged free from any taint of alien blood.
It was in the nationalistic sentiment that much of the church got swept up. Many believed that God’s will was for the nation as a whole, and as such tried to mold Christianity into the nation and not vice versa.
We now move to the second focus of our discussion, which is the positive or negative impact each group had on the nation. We will begin by assessing the impact of both parties on the church itself.
Bonhoeffer endeavoured to support the church in whatever way he could. He helped to form the Pastor’s Emergency League; an organization intended to support pastors who were affected by state policies. He mentored and taught new pastors at his own safety and expense by creating a seminary that was not state influenced. He also worked tirelessly in establishing an association of independent pastors (Confessing Church) and in drafting a statement that would publicly challenge the state’s policies. Bonhoeffer worked hard to support and enhance those around him.
The German Church’s actions showed a very different result for the church. It sought control rather than unity. For example, Ludwig Müller disbanded troublesome ministries and replaced strong leaders with those more willing to compromise. It sought compliance rather than agreement. The church demanded unwavering support for its policies, such as “submission to the ‘leadership principle,’ the dismissal of all ‘non-Aryan’ pastors, and the unrestricted collaboration with the state in all political and social issues.” Perhaps most troublesome was that the church sought submission rather than independence from the state, declaring theirs an “affirmative, truly national faith in Christ, in the Germanic spirit of Luther and of heroic piety.”
Another impact was on the society itself. Bonhoeffer’s actions did much to improve the society he lived in. His work in the ecumenical movement sought to creative unity through the cooperation of churches. He fought hard for the protection of the Jewish population within Germany, often putting his own life at risk in trying to smuggle Jews out of Germany. Being one of the first theologians to recognize Hitler’s danger to society, he worked tirelessly to oppose his election in the state and intrusion into the churches through his connections with universities and German policymakers. In many ways, Bonhoeffer’s actions aided his society.
The German church had the opposite effect on society. The church supported the state’s restrictions on free speech and the racial discrimination occurring in Germany. Its disciplinary measures against its own members weakened the leadership of the church and often resulted in the unjust incarceration of many innocent people. The church’s forceful criticism of anyone opposing the state’s action was perhaps the greatest negative impact, as it silenced what Hitler feared would be the greatest source of opposition to his policies. The German Church hurt society in its actions.
The final impact is in the realm of theology itself. In this was perhaps Bonhoeffer’s greatest impact. The fought hard against the Aryan paragraph and the attempts to forge a nationalistic version of Christianity which the German church was promoting. The Barmen Declaration was a result of his “constant pushing and prodding for the resistance to make a definitive stance.” He was deeply committed throughout his work to oppose intrusions to scripture: “Bonhoeffer’s theology was constantly probing for ways in which Christian identity could be secured from the acids of a religion that delivered itself into the hands of the state.” He fought for a non-corrupted theology.
The German church took actions that in many ways created an increasingly heretical theology. The church bent to state appeals to edit Scripture itself so that it fits with Nazi ideologies. Furthermore, the Church would eventually adopt a comparison of Hitler to Jesus as the Messiah of the new nation, a message that was even taught to young children. The church also changed its theology to reject the mission of caring for the poor in favour of fighting the true injustice of righting the wrong done to the nation by its enemies. These are some of the ways in which the German church had a detrimental impact on theology.
The final criterion that we will compare is the way each party opposed the actions of the state. Thus far we have examined how both parties responded to the state itself, and how their actions impacted their society. We will begin this final portion by addressing three ways they responded to the destructive actions of the state itself.
In Bonhoeffer’s case, his first response to the state’s evil was to gain attention. Right from the initial election of the Nazi party to power, Bonhoeffer delivered a bold radio address warning his society of the danger of this new leader, an address that is “unmistakable evidence of the clarity with which Bonhoeffer viewed the Nazi threat.” He was often the main source of information of the state of the German church to the world due to his strong connections to foreign leaders and Christians. His strong willingness to speak out against the state was in fact so forceful that the Gestapo and the police often threatened him with ultimatums.”
In contrast, the German Church was mostly silent about the increasingly troubling signs of evil perpetrated by the state. There was no response to the events of kristallnacht nor to the state policy to liquidate the sick. As the state’s actions became more and more pronounced, the German Church demonstrated almost no response to the violence. As Bosquanet illustrates: “The Christian community seemed inert, almost indifferent, and in this situation of unparalleled suffering and need, the Church showed itself unwilling to speak or act with authority.”
When attention failed, Bonhoeffer moved to activism. He poured himself into his writing, calling on pastors everywhere to stand against the state. He worked with university students and organizations to fight against state policies and to counteract the states attempts to manipulate the election of church officials. He was even involved in several plots to assassinate Hitler, using his foreign connections to facilitate communication with world powers. His constant work with the Confessing Church and leadership at the seminary at Filkenwalde landed him on the Gestapo’s hit list and even got him noticed by Hitler.
The German Church was actually more of a reluctant, if not a willing collaborator of the state’s actions. The response to the emerging anti-Semitic laws was positive, as “most Germans, even within the churches, thought that these laws were good for Germany.” Many pastors throughout Germany agreed in principle with the Hitler’s laws, and were thus “reluctant to criticize his domestic and foreign policies where these did not touch the church.” It was reactions such as these that prompted Bonhoeffer to declare, “here the most intelligent people have totally lost both their heads and their Bible.”
Finally, Bonhoeffer’s response to the state was a defiant one, in which he engaged in various quite public anti-government demonstrations. His primary methods of resistance were writing and facilitating group action, the most prolific one being his connection with plots to kill Hitler in which he was a non-direct collaborator (handled the communication with foreign dignitaries about the plots and possible foreign responses). The German church on the other hand was more compliant in allowing the government to have its way. The German church operated more as a propaganda agency for the state with the more extreme factions of the church adopting the symbol of the swastika as their new cross.
Christianity is meant to be a moral force, keeping the moral good of people in mind even when opposed by the power of a state. In comparing Bonhoeffer’s response to evil with that of the German state, we have illustrated the varying outcomes of such actions. In the case of acceptance, we saw how Bonhoeffer chose to honour his convictions even when the cost was great whereas German Christians accepted the promises of unity and prestige that the state offered. In addressing the state, Bonhoeffer’s approach helped to promote theology and societal good whereas the German church opted for control of its members and elevated the national good. In the case of defiance, Bonhoeffer loudly and practically opposed the state policies in honouring his own convictions. German Christians opted to remain silent and in many ways was compliant in it carrying out its policies. While Christianity is not meant to fight the government at every cost, its purpose is to be an agent of moral resistance, and self-sacrificial in nature.